Farmworkers ask Taco Bell to negotiate on tomato-picking pay and conditions
February 2001

About 150 farmworkers, students, and Gainesville community members marched along West University Avenue on February 4. Their destination was Taco Bell, a major consumer of Florida tomatoes, which has so far refused to join in talks with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on wages and other working conditions in Florida's fields.

The Farmworkers from Immokalee work in the heart of Florida's $600 million tomato industry. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is announcing plans for a national boycott of Taco Bell products unless Taco Bell, a major buyer of Florida tomatoes, agrees to workers' request for talks and substantive action on wages and other working conditions in Florida's fields.

According to organizers, the Gainesville action will be followed by similar protests bringing farmworkers and students together in college towns throughout the state in what organizers are calling a 'Month of Protests.' A month of actions across Florida is designed to demonstrate consumer support for a broader campaign holding Taco Bell accountable for the working conditions of the men and women that pick the tomatoes that go into Taco Bell's burritos, tacos, and chalupas.

Taco Bell protesters Taco Bell protesters

Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers recalled, "Since 1995, our members have left the fields in strikes, marched half the length of Florida, and even fasted in protest for 30 days, all for the simple demand of dialogue with Florida's tomato growers and a living wage. While we have seen some progress, the pace of change remains far too slow. It seems that, for whatever reason, agribusiness leaders in Florida think they operate in a world all their own, a world where workers are no more than tools, where none of the rules of modern labor relations apply, and where they don't have to answer to anyone, not even the public that buys their product."

Today, all that is going to have to change," continued Benitez. "Today, we are joining forces with students from across Florida, students who have made their voices heard as consumers throughout the world. Students who have exercised the force of their moral outrage at sweatshop conditions in the apparel industry on companies as powerful as Nike, and have won significant reforms in the process. Students, who are Taco Bell's target market, and who will not stand by while we as farmworkers continue to toil in sweatshops right here in Florida's fields. The union of farmworkers and students is an historic step in our movement, one we are certain will make us stronger. Together, we will win this fight."

Students are Taco Bell's target market, added Brian Payne of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, so "we as students are in a unique position to dedicate our resources and creativity towards helping Taco Bell realize the importance of the farmworkers' role in its success and, therefore, the company's responsibility for improving the wages and working conditions of our state's tomato pickers. Thousands of students from across the state are prepared to stand in solidarity with farmworkers in their struggle for dialogue and a living wage."

Taco Bell's response to the protest, reported the following day, stated in part, "We do not think it is our place to get involved in labor disputes that do not involve our employees." Pickle pickers in Ohio experienced the same problem as tomato pickers in Florida. When they asked for more money from the growers, the growers told them that the buyers (like Mt. Olive Pickle Company) were dictating the prices. After a long campaign and boycott, farmworkers were able to get a 3-way contract between themselves, the growers and the buyers.

For more information, contact Lucas Benitez or Romeo Ramirez, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, (941) 657-8311 or Brian Payne, Student/Farmworker Alliance (941) 867-9127.

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